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Squatting offensive tabled in the House

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(The Center Square) – A bill that helps Pennsylvania property owners evict squatters faster hit a roadblock in the state House on Monday.

The proposal passed the Senate unanimously on June 12, though Republican lawmakers’ attempts to amend it in the lower chamber were shut down along party lines.

Reclaiming properties is an exhausting and painful process, according to prime sponsor Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie. It requires the issuance of a “notice to quit” to illegitimate occupants – imposing financial and emotional burdens on property owners.

The bill, he said, establishes a precise legal status for squatters and empowers property owners, granting them the tools they need to safeguard their homes and investments quickly and effectively without wading through needless red tape.

On Monday, Rep. Donna Scheuren, R-Gilbertsville, wanted to amend the proposal to give law enforcement permission to remove trespassers immediately upon probable cause based on a signed affidavit by the homeowner and impose increased penalties for property damage.

She’s introduced her own bill to do the same, saying on the chamber floor Monday that she, and other lawmakers, have heard from “anxious” constituents worried about the “highly dishonest” practice.

“Squatting incidents have been occurring at an ever-increasing rate throughout this country and criminals are keenly taking advantage of lax laws to commandeer the property rights of lawful home and land owners,” she said.

The term “squatter’s rights” refers to the legal concept of adverse possession. In Pennsylvania, squatters can potentially claim legal ownership of a property after 21 years of continuous, exclusive and visible possession.

A recent trend, however, involves people moving into homes while the owners are away – and the process of removing them can be time-consuming and expensive.

“Imagine coming home, only to find strangers occupying the space where you’ve created cherished memories, and then being told that removing them will require a costly and prolonged legal battle,” Laughlin said. “It’s a situation that would fill anyone with frustration and despair.”

It can also be dangerous. Scheuren, during floor debate, described such an incident that unfolded in New York when a woman was murdered by squatters who had taken over her home while she was on vacation in Spain.

There are also instances across Pennsylvania, she added. One homeowner spent over $1,200 to evict squatters, while another was jailed for changing the locks on her own home.

Others watched as squatters turned their properties into “drug dens,” Scheuren said. Despite obvious violations of state law, police remain “reluctant” to act because they say it’s difficult to determine true ownership.

“This amendment is clearly needed to strengthen property rights and homeowner protections,” she said.

House Democratic leadership did not immediately respond to questions regarding their decision to table the amendment, and several others.

Lauren Jessop contributed to this report.

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